vladimir putin
Russian
President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Turkish Prime
Minister Binali Yildirim at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia,
December 6, 2016.

Reuters/Sergei
Karpukhin


President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin
went back and forth making public statement about
their countries’ nuclear arsenals
this week, days after
President Barack Obama
used his last press conference of 2016
to warn Russia against
continued hacking.

And on Wednesday, the Kremlin said almost all
communication channels between Moscow and the US were frozen.

While it seemed tensions were high between the two
countries, the incoming Trump administration seemed to be looking
to soothe relations with the Kremlin. And Putin
appeared open to that possibility.

At his year-end press conference on Friday, Putin said he
believed that “a substantial part of the American people share
similar views with us on the world’s organization, what we ought
to be doing, and the common threats and challenges we are
facing.” He noted that shared values could provide a “good
foundation” to “build relations between two such powerful
countries.”

Putin also
sent a Christmas letter to Trump earlier this month
, which
Trump fawned over in a statement issued Friday.

In the letter, Putin extended his “warmest Christmas and New
Year greetings” to “his excellency Donald Trump” and offered
“sincere wishes to you and your family of sound health,
happiness, well being, success, and all the best.”

It all seemed to indicate an opening for increased
diplomacy between the US and Russia despite recent tensions.

“At Putin’s year-end conference today he struck a softer tone on
a number of issues — nukes, Ukraine, etc.,” Boris Zilberman, a
Russia expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies,
told Business Insider in an email.

“President-elect Trump also signaled a willingness to reassess
the relationship between DC and Moscow in his release of Putin’s
letter,” Zilberman added. “What will be important to
watch is the way in which both sides approach they very real and
very thorny issues in the relationship — which Putin said at his
conference currently ‘can’t be worse.'”

Putin saying that current relations “can’t be worse” seems to
indicate a hope for improvement.

“Starting at such a low point presents an opportunity — through
small verifiable confidence building measures — to explore how
these deep conflicts in the relationship might be addressed,”
Zilberman said. “The warmer tone from the incoming White House
and the Kremlin are a play to explore those possibilities.”

Nuclear proliferation might end up being a key issue in US-Russia
relations going forward.

On Thursday, Putin boasted about the strength of his military,
claiming it was more powerful than any potential
aggressor. Trump tweeted hours later the US must
“expand its nuclear capability” until “the world comes to its
senses.”

And on Friday, Trump went even further. MSNBC host Mika
Brzezinski said that when she asked him if his
tweet might spur other countries to increase their
nuclear arsenals,
he replied, “let it be an arms race.”

While most experts agreed that Trump’s statements about nuclear
proliferation were dangerous, the Kremlin might actually be
happy to rise to the challenge.

“I think Mr. Putin will be delighted,” James Acton, co-director
of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace, told Business Insider on Friday.

“Putin has for a long time called for strengthening Russia’s
nuclear deterrent remaining within the limits of arms control.
But this is fantastic from his perspective because it legitimizes
a lot of the dangerous and destabilizing action he’d like to do
with Russia’s nuclear arsenal.”

A supposed military challenge from America could play well
domestically in Russia, Acton said.

“From his own perspective, that’s not such a bad thing,” Acton
said. “The Putin regime in recent years has been founded upon
anti-Americanism. A threat from America is a useful thing for him
to have domestically.”

At the end of the day, Trump “is clearly [Putin’s] man in
the White House,” Acton said.

“Russia’s position for the next few months is going to be to not
wind up Trump, to try to get a level relationship with him,”
Acton said. Still, “a bromance is not a good relationship on
which to build US-Russia relations.”